In 2006, Gareth Wyn Jones and 22 of his neighbouring sheep farmers in the Carneddau mountains set up the first ever plc grazing society in the UK supported by the Snowdonia National Park, EU and Countryside Council for Wales. The idea was to adjust the number of sheep on the hill with conservation in mind to give upland habitat and wildlife a chance to recover.
Keeping flocks off the mountains in the winter has resulted in a huge improvement to the peatland, its biodiversity and the amount of carbon it can absorb. But it’s not only overgrazing that has a negative impact; some areas had been under-grazed and become overgrown.
Cattle, sheep and Carneddau ponies managed by the farmers play an important role in soil health, regenerating rare plants and increasing insect life which is essential to maintaining bird populations including the rare chough.
Gareth, whose farm is in Tyn Llwyfan, near Llanfairfechan, Gwynedd said: “I would welcome Welsh Government ministers to visit to see how the habitats have changed for the better and how we manage different areas, deciding there’s not enough grazing here or just a few too many sheep there.”
As well as habitat improvements, the grazing society funds the control of foxes on the mountain, which has led to an increase in hares and rare ground-nesting birds such as curlew and black grouse. Gareth believes that for future agri-environment schemes to work, it is essential that farmers are compensated for loss of income and that policy takes into account that every farm is different. He is passionate that livestock still have a vital part to play in delivering twin outcomes of food production and a healthier countryside.
He said: “There’s a lot of pressure from environmentalists to stop livestock farming and I think it’s wrong. Cattle are a priority for our soil health and fertility as well as giving us top quality protein and from sheep we get a bonus in wool, which we should be making much more use of.”
His key message to policymakers is to listen to the Working Conservationists on the ground. “Talk to individual farmers find out where to best spend taxpayers’ money to protect the environment and produce affordable food. We are at a massive turning point, it’s going to be difficult, but it has to be done right.”